By Robert Green | An edited version of this article was published Jan 7, 2015 by the Montreal Gazette
During his most recent election campaign Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard stated that protecting the quality of education would be one of his government’s main priorities.
It is now clear, Phillipe Couillard was not telling the truth.
Since coming into office he and his hapless Minister of Education Yves Bolduc have done nothing but propose policies that will harm the quality of education in Quebec.
By insulting teachers with a contract offer that will likely see their real wages eroded by at least 7 percent over five years, the Couillard government is sending a clear message that it does not value the teaching profession. Quebec’s teachers are already the lowest paid in Canada with some of the most difficult working conditions. If this initial offer is any indication, the government is intent on ensuring that this wage gap with teachers in other provinces not only remains but in fact widens.
What is the cost for students and for society as a whole when high quality teachers are driven out of the profession, or worse, when high quality candidates choose not to enter the profession in the first place? Sadly, if Couillard has his way, we may soon find out.
Perhaps even more insulting to teachers is the government’s proposal to increase our workload. What Mr Bolduc doesn’t seem to realize is that past increases to our workload have made it such that teachers already cannot accomplish the task they have been assigned within the hours they are paid. Despite this fact, the vast majority of teachers, because they are committed professionals, choose to take marking home to do during evenings and weekends. It is also extremely common for teachers to use their sick days to catch-up on marking. Each time teachers do either of these things they are in effect making a personal donation to Quebec’s public education system and helping to cover-up the fact that past governments have not made adequate investments in education.
To threaten to increase the workloads of teachers in such a context where the vast majority of teachers are already working an untold number of unpaid hours from home demonstrates that Couillard and Bolduc are either utterly ignorant of the realities of Quebec’s teaching profession or reckless ideologues that simply don’t care. The government is risking alienating teachers to the point where we stop working hours for which we are not paid. If that happens we will not need to strike because the system, which is being propped up by the thousands of volunteer hours donated by Quebec’s teachers, will fall apart.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the Couillard government’s total disregard for public education is his proposal to remove limits on class size. This was accompanied by Bolduc’s astonishing claim that there is no evidence to suggest that class size reductions improve educational outcomes. That Quebec’s Minister of Education is unversed in the enormous body of research demonstrating the contrary is disturbing enough; that he apparently didn’t even bother to do a little research before making this announcement demonstrates a shocking level of disregard for the public interest.
Of course the government claims that these tough decisions are necessary to tame Quebec’s ballooning deficit. The problem with this claim is that in many places around the world where such austerity measures are being implemented economic growth is harmed and deficits end up growing. Since 2012 the IMF has made repeated warnings against further austerity because of its demonstrated capacity to harm economic growth.
The other problem with the government’s claim is that our current deficits were not in fact caused by spending. Since the early nineties government spending in Quebec has been trending downward. Quebec’s public sector has time and again done its part to help government achieve the goal of deficit reduction. The real cause of our current deficit is a series of tax cuts enacted since the early 2000’s that have disproportionately benefited Quebec’s wealthiest citizens to an enormous degree. For example, according to L’Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-economique (IRIS) the $950 million in tax cuts the Liberals offered in 2007-2008 provided absolutely nothing to households with $25,000 in income, $110 to households with $50,000 in income and a whopping $1859 to households with $150,000 in income. The cut to taxes on capital gains which began in 2005-2006 was essentially a massive gift to the banks that deprives Quebec’s public coffers of 1.9 billion annually.
Reversing these two tax cuts alone would almost eliminate Quebec’s deficit. Instead, Couillard is asking vulnerable public school children to pay for these tax cuts. This is not a necessity; it is a choice he is making.
If Couillard wants Quebecers to believe that he is anything other than a reckless right-wing ideologue intent on protecting the interests of the wealthy he should explain how cutting a public education system that benefits all Quebecers is preferable to reversing these tax cuts which have benefited so few.